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May 25, 2013

On the Challenges of Protecting Collections for All

Last week we surveyed the commons network in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and triumphs experienced by individuals advancing the commons and commons solutions. In response, we heard from Nick Poole, chief executive of Collections Trust.

Collections Trust is an independent UK-based organization working with museums, libraries, galleries, and archives worldwide to improve the management of their Collections, a commons shared by us all. The work of Collections Trust “ensures that millions of people worldwide can continue to discover, enjoy, and learn from their history and knowledge and stories which bring it to life.”

Poole’s response to our inquiry about his effort to protect Collections was clear and insightful, and we are delighted to share it with our wider community.

— Jessica Conrad

A letter to On the Commons from Nick Poole:

I lead Collections Trust, a UK-based nonprofit organization working with around 23,000 museums, galleries, libraries, and archives across Europe. It is my firm belief that the principles, ethics, and spirit of the Commons lie at the heart of the public mission of the culture sector.

I have been working to promote the idea of a Cultural Commons for Europe—not only in the digital realm, but also by asserting that the millions of books, artifacts, and records in Europe’s cultural institutions belong to a commons of the world’s memory.

Through this work, I try to demonstrate that the Commons is not just an abstract set of ideas, but a very real and tangible means of building a lasting, scalable, transparent, and relevant culture sector for the 21st century.

But it has been a struggle to ignite this idea in my community. My main challenges include the following:

  • Everyone sees the word “Commons” and thinks of the Creative Commons. They go straight to technology and copyright rather than human rights and shared responsibilities.

  • The word “Commons” does not travel well. Countries without a well-established concept of common land find it harder to engage with than others.

  • When you say you are trying to develop a Commons, everyone wants to see it. Where is it? Is it online? Can I go there? The concept is just too abstract for western scientific rationalists to easily grasp.

  • People assume the Commons is anti-money, as opposed to anti-enclosure, so they assume they can’t afford it—particularly in a time of austerity. I try to demonstrate that the Commons can be the basis of a profoundly scalable business model, but examples are few and far between.

  • Commons ≠ Communism. People think the Commons is a political statement, not a human one. I find that a lot of people opt out of the conversation because they think they’re getting involved in a fringe lobby group.

Although I’ve faced challenges, I’ve also discovered some successful solutions, including your Commons Framework. I also use a thought exercise where I ask people to imagine the difference between a piece of land that they own in common and one that is owned by a landlord. If you build on a piece of land that someone owns, the results of your labour are never yours. But if you build on, and care for, a piece of land that is held in common, then it is yours and everyone’s forever. This ought to be the primary purpose of a museum, archive, or library.

For more information about Collections Trust, you can visit their website at www.collectionstrust.org.uk. Email us at info[at]onthecommons.org to share your own challenges and triumphs in advancing the commons and commons solutions.